Sean Stevens, FIRE, September 6, 2023
Harvard is consistently ranked one of the best universities in the United States. But FIRE frequently finds itself in the odd position of giving this all-star academic school failing grades.
Simply put, Harvard has never performed well in FIRE’s College Free Speech Rankings, finishing below 75% of the schools surveyed in each of the past four years.
In 2020, Harvard ranked 46 out of 55 schools. In 2021, it ranked 130 out of 154 schools. Last year, it ranked 170 out of 203 schools. And this year, Harvard completed its downward spiral in dramatic fashion, coming in dead last with the worst score ever: 0.00 out of a possible 100.00. This earns it the notorious distinction of being the only school ranked this year with an “Abysmal” speech climate.
What’s more, granting Harvard a score of 0.00 is generous. Its actual score is -10.69, more than six standard deviations below the average and more than two standard deviations below the second-to-last school in the rankings, its Ivy League counterpart, the University of Pennsylvania. (Penn obtained an overall score of 11.13.)
This raises the question: Why did Harvard do so poorly? In light of its historically low ranking, the reasons are many.
Bad across the board
First of all, Harvard, which on paper commits to protecting free speech, has a dismal record of responding to deplatforming attempts — attempts to sanction students, student groups, scholars, and speakers for speech protected under First Amendment standards. Of nine attempts in total over the past five years, seven resulted in sanction.
For each of these seven incidents, Harvard was penalized in the rankings:
- From 2019 to this year, Harvard sanctioned four scholars, three of whom it terminated.
- In 2020, Harvard revoked conservative student activist Kyle Kashuv’s acceptance over comments he made on social media as a 16-year-old, for which he had since apologized.
- In 2022, Harvard disinvited feminist philosopher Devin Buckley from an English department colloquium on campus over her views on gender and trans issues.
- In 2019, Harvard was the site of a substantial event disruption when protesters interrupted a joint talk featuring former Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow and Graduate School of Education Dean Bridget Terry Long by occupying the stage and refusing to leave.
Harvard also performed very poorly on a number of the survey-based components of the College Free Speech Rankings, ranking 193 out of 254 on “Comfort Expressing Ideas,” 183 on “Administrative Support,” and 198 on “Disruptive Conduct.” This is reflected in student survey responses. For instance, just over a quarter of Harvard students reported they are comfortable publicly disagreeing with their professor on a controversial political topic; only roughly a third think it is “very” or “extremely” clear the administration protects free speech on campus; and an alarming 30% think using violence to stop a campus speech is at least “rarely” acceptable, an increase from the 26% of Harvard students who felt this way last year.
Trends over the last four years of Harvard’s data are troubling as well. For starters, self-censorship is steadily on the rise, with the percentage of Harvard students who say they self-censor on campus “fairly often” or “very often” increasing from 16% two years ago to 22% last year and 24% this year.
Last but not least, Harvard’s speech policies leave a lot to be desired. The school earns FIRE’s “yellow light” rating, indicating that it maintains policies that restrict some amount of protected expression or that, by virtue of their vague wording, Havard could too easily use to restrict protected expression. For instance, Harvard requires students to be “civil” when using computers and networks.